Monthly Archives: June 2012

I Have No Title or Category for This

Or any comment either, except to wonder if the execs at Adidas have truly lost their minds. (News flash: apparently recovering from what they had been smoking, Adidas execs have decided to withdraw this particular model. It will probably become a collector’s item, like all those cans of New Coke I have sitting around.)

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A Biscuit City Chronicle: Little Georgie and the Lost Horizon

I have been thinking about graduations lately (it seems the thing to do at this time of year.)—and about the graduations I have been to—probably more than the average person since I was required by the powers that were to attend the graduations at the high school where I taught for 32 years. I think I missed one, somehow, and I don’t recall why. If I have counted correctly, I have been to forty high school graduations (including my own and our daughters’), two college ceremonies, two graduate school, two seminary and one kindergarten. That’s 47 graduations, which ain’t too bad if you’re counting.
The worst ceremony was, surprisingly, one of the seminary ceremonies. You’d think they would have known better. It lasted three hours (we left after two and a half), and we had to stand in spite of having tickets. The speaker was Justice Brennan, who went on for 45 minutes. I had ninth graders who would have made a better speech. You’d think that a Supreme Court Justice would have more significant things to say than the rambling incoherence that Justice Brennan favored all of us with. It was worse than the infamous Rubber Chicken graduation at Robinson High in about 1988. That alleged ceremony saw a rubber chicken flung bout by the seniors for the better part of the evening, along with the obligatory beach balls and silly string. There was also an inflatable woman who surfaced briefly, but she was larger and easier to snag than the chicken.
After about twenty high school graduations, I realized that there are conflicting expectations present at a ceremony. The seniors look on it as sort of a warmup to heavy duty partying. The teachers present expect the same degree of decorum with 600 plus seniors in a heightened state of excitement that they have with a class of 25 first-semester sophomores after lunch. Parents and grandparents are mildly confused by so many 17- and 18-year-olds in one place. Administrators are happy if no one is trampled or killed and eaten during the proceedings.
I also have a tie for the best graduation ceremony. One was Alyssa’s kindergarten graduation—the high school class of 1999 was 12 strong, wearing construction paper mortarboards they had made themselves. The director read “Everything I  Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten,” which then was circulating in Xeroxed copies, not printed on everything from coffee cups to diapers as it is now. Each graduate of the kindergarten received a certificate and a hug from the director and their teacher, and we all had juice and cookies sitting at tiny tables in little chairs. It was absolutely charming.
My other favorite ceremony was my graduation from elementary school, which then extended into seventh grade, a concept which makes me blanche how. We had a cool teacher, the only man in the school, who later became my first principal when I started teaching. He divided our school day into periods and we set up a giant HO train set in the room the week before Christmas vacation. In the spring, we went outside and played softball for hours.
Naturally, in the waning days of our seventh grade careers, we became thoroughly obnoxious. At least I did. I recognize the phenomenon now as short-timer’s syndrome, a psychological defense mechanism against the uncertainty of leaving what is familiar. But, as far as we were concerned, we were headed to eighth grade, intermediate school, and we were far too cool for words.
Our school chose to honor us with a graduation during the day. My mother was less then impressed.
“Graduation is for high school,” she opined.
“Now it’s for elementary school,” I returned.
“You should save some things for later,” she said.
“Geez, Mom, it’s only a ceremony. It’s not like I’m taking up drinking and smoking or anything like that.”
She fixed me with a  familiar gaze. “Boys who drink and smoke…”
“Let me guess, Mom—they go to hell, right?”
I was clearly ready to graduate from elementary school.
My mother did not come to the ceremony as a protest. It was the only school event I was involved in that she did not attend. There wasn’t much to it—Miss Brown, our principal, said a few things about striving and making our school proud of us; Mrs. Woolworth played the piano; we marched across the stage and got our certificates. And that was it. No refreshment, no reception, nothing. I think that, for a change, the school didn’t know what to do with us. So they sent us to recess for the rest of the day—for two hours.
My best friend Mike and I had given up on organized sports by that time—it was too hot to stand around in the sun and play softball, so we stood in the shadow of the building and made witty comments about the kids on the playground.
“Look how little those kids are, Mike,” I said.
“Yeah, and look at those stupid games.”
“That’s right, no more stupid games for us. Soon we’ll be bush pilots.” We were convinced that the eighth grade consisted of a bush piloting curriculum we had been eagerly awaiting. This was in spite of being signed up for English, math, science, shop/music/art, p.e. and French. I suppose we thought these were code terms for aeronautics and navigation.
We stood there, glad just to contribute our superior presence to the school. As I looked out across the playground, I felt—nothing. Well, maybe a small pang at the prospect of not being sure that the lovely Leigh Stone, the woman of my dreams, would be in any of my classes the next year. Not that I would admit that to Mike.
I searched for something to say to convey the sense of superiority that we felt.
“Whatcha doin’?”
For a moment, I didn’t recognize the voice. It was distinctive, certainly, and vaguely familiar. I just wasn’t expecting it. I rarely saw our neighbor, Little Georgie, at school, and in six years, he hadn’t spoken to me on school grounds.
Georgie was, well, different. He was called “slow” back then. I don’t know what his condition was, but he had a hard time of it. For the most part, kids ignored him, and a few tortured the poor boy. He best known for falling into the mill race during the big fourth grade field trip to Washington’s Grist Mill a few years before. We called him “little” although he was anything but that.
I wasn’t sure exactly which grade Georgie was in then. He started in the same grade that I was in and kept up for a few years. Then he slipped behind, stuck in the fourth grade for several years. I suppose he was a pioneer in what we now call an ungraded curriculum.
I wasn’t sure what to say, so I said, “Georgie, we are lordly seventh graders, masters of all we survey.”
“Why?”
Uh oh—he was in one of his “stuck” modes in which he repeated the same question dozens of times. I knew this, but kept after it anyhow.
“Because, Georgie, we are graduates of Westmore Elementary School.”
“Why?”
“Because, Georgie, that is what you do after you’ve learned everything there is to know.”
Mike sidled off to the basketball court. I think Georgie made him uncomfortable. Or maybe it was my trying to have a conversation with him.
“Why?”
I was stumped. I had not more explanations. Then it occurred to me that Georgie would never graduate from anywhere.
“Georgie,” I said.
“Yeah?”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“OK,” he mumbled. “I won’t…” And he shuffled off.
He never did graduate from elementary school, dropping out in the fifth grade after repeating it a couple of times. I heard he joined a motorcycle gang at age 14.
So,  maybe there are some reasons some of us go to more than our share of graduations. It might be that we are making up for those who never had a graduation.
Alyssa brought home a notice of graduation when she was nearly finished with sixth grade. She had been quizzing Amy about life in junior high school—classic questions about being lost and being stuffed into lockers and being forced to eat unrecognizable food. She was in the high school advisory group at church. I sent the youth choir director a sympathy card since she was all his the next fall.
I asked her if she wanted me to come to her graduation since it was during school. “I can take off,” I said. 
“It’s only creative writing, not a real subject.”
“Oh, don’t bother,” she sniffed. “It will be so lame.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“Oh,” she sighed, “Mrs. Jackson will get up and make some speech about doing our best and making Weems proud of us and the music teacher will play something dorky on the piano that I could play with one hand and then we have to stand up and sing the stupid school song…”
“The one you changed the words to?” There was the official version and the sixth-grade version, which has deliciously devastating comments about the school and the staff. I suppose I shouldn’t have laughed at it.
“Yeah, and we’re going to sing the bad words.” This from a child who walked around the house singing the Barney song as “I love you/You love me/That’s how we get H.I.V…”
“Wish I could be there…”
“Don’t bother. Elementary school is for losers.”
Some things never change, I suppose. Just the times and the ages. “I suppose it is, Alyssa,” I said. “I suppose it is.”

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A Nice Evening Out

Never let anyone say that Becky and I don’t know how to have a good time. One of our favorite things to do when the Bloom grocery store used to run double coupon specials was to go to the store, split up the shopping list and buy groceries for ourselves and the food pantry at church. I liked to see who could finish first, but Becky didn’t want to race so my victories were always hollow. I like grocery stores in general, so we had a good time.

Saturday evening about 9:00 or so, Becky asked me if I would go with her to get gas in her Glass-Enclosed Toyota Music Machine (aka her 1999 Avalon) and, never one to miss out on fun, I said sure and we were off. The station is about a mile from our house, so we arrived quickly; I jumped out and pumped the gas, noting that it was “down” to $3.20 a gallon, and got back in. Becky proposed that we go to Nathan’s Ice Cream Bar (or whatever it is) about half a mile away. I wasn’t sure I could take that much merriment, but I agreed and we went to Nathan’s where the line was about thirty people long. They serve quickly there and soon we were enjoying a vanilla cone and a pineapple sundae respectively.

We sat at one of the tables, ate our ice cream and watched the line double in size in about ten minutes. It was a nice evening and nice to be out. Then we went home, but it was a nice (if brief) outing.

We are not what anyone would call outdoor people. Most of the time in this area it’s too humid or hot or cold or rainy or snowy or whatever to enjoy being outside. Generally we go from our heated or air conditioned house to our climate-controlled cars and then to temperate buildings and stores and rarely stay outside. We’ had a nice stretch of low-humidity warmish weather and it’s nice just to be out.

When I was a lad, we frequently sat outside as a family. Our house didn’t have air conditioning, and we would sit in the dark (fun times!) until the interior cooled down enough to sleep. I remember chasing and catching fireflies in a jar and seeing if they gave off enough light to read a comic book by. I never could, but I kept trying.

Our mother preferred that Ron and I stay outside anyone so we wouldn’t tear up the house, so we pretty much did live outside. There have been a lot of changes since those days, but it was nice Saturday evening to, in a sense, revisit an earlier time. We’ll have to do it again soon.

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The Continuing No Shame Poetry Series Presents "There’s Always a Diagram"

There’s Always a Diagram

That’s what my daughter and her friend say
As they talk about their co-workers
Who drive them crazy.

Friend: “It doesn’t matter what he’s talking about
He always draws the same diagram
It’s a bell curve and it illustrates everything
According to him,
Infant mortality rates or shopping patterns of
New mothers”
And she draws a bell curve on a scrap
Of paper.

At the table, we look at the bell curve as if
We have never seen one before
And nod sagely, yes, that is irritating and odd
But I’m thinking, it does apply to those situations.

Daughter: “My guy always draws a circle
And then puts little dots inside it. He says things like
‘Here’s the target population’ and draws a circle
And then peppers it with little dots,
‘And here are our inreach efforts,’ ”
And she quickly draws a circle
And jabs her pen into the paper a number of times.

As I study both diagrams, daughter and friend lapse into
A kind of disgusted silent contemplation of their lot
While I realize the coworkers they are fed up with
Are guys my age only a little obsessed with their ideas
And unsure just how to communicate them.

And so the old guys draw the same diagrams
To illustrate everything
Time after time

But looking at the two diagrams
I like them both and
I can’t decide between them.

–Dan Verner

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Advice for Writers: A Worth-While Interview and MoreProjecting Away

Before I get into my little bit about writing, I want to recommend an interview by Carol Covin (Granny Guru, author of  Who Gets to Name Grandma– online at http://grandparents.about.com/od/booksaboutgrandparenting/fr/Who-Gets-To-Name-Grandma-The-Wisdom-Of-Mothers-And-Grandmothers.htm Carol also writes on her website http://newgrandmas.com/ most notably an amazing blog entitled “New Grandmas Rock” ).

Carol interviewed Lake Ridge author Nancy Kyme (author of Memory Lake–online at http://www.nancyskyme.com/, and also available on Amazon.com and Barnes and Noble.com. If you don’t have these two ladies’ books, log off now and go to their websites or to Amazon or B&N and order yourself copies for you and all your friends).

The ostensible subject of the interview is Anne LaMott’s book on writing, Bird by Bird, but Carol and Nancy share their own insights into writing as well. They talk about the book and about their writing with charm and grace, which is much more than I can manage. It’s well worth a listen: http://recording.freeconferencecalling.com/mp3/1025268/176393/IA1205_06122012074223289_1157686.mp3.

OK, then, here’s my paltry contribution on the subject for this week:

I seem to have fallen into a number of long term projects which I have written about occasionally on these pages. One was going through my father’s household belongings and selling, giving away or keeping them. This took me from about last August to this February. In a sense, I’m not finished because I still have to integrate his tools into my tool collection and cull the duplicates. I think I presently have four caulking guns.

Then there was my attic insulation project, which ran from last August until about this April. I’m pleased to report that the upstairs is not as hot as it has been other summers so all those R values are above my head working away.

My fence project has about two sections complete with a third underway. I ran out of materials Friday and did not want to brave Home Depot on a Saturday. It waited until Monday.

My point is that a lot can be accomplished over a period of time with persistent effort. I was thinking about this in conjunction with a novel I have begun. I wrote an abysmal one-character novel in which nothing happened about twenty years ago. No one will ever see it. I wonder why I haven’t burned it. But this time, I’m already up to about ten characters and I’m writing about something I know about. What a concept!

And I know from my first attempt that it’s a matter of keeping after it day by day. Already I find myself wanting to get back to work on it when I’m working on tool organization or fence building. I suppose the writer has to be the most enthusiastic person about what he or she is writing or else no one else will care. I grew used to being the most enthusiastic person in the room about literature when I taught English in high school, so this is not a new role for me.

I was reminded by some writer friends to practice what I preached when I taught creative writing years ago: write what parts jump out at you, don’t think you have to start at the beginning and write to the end (start anywhere and jump around if you want. No one will know when it’s done) and expect to revise, revise, revise. Thanks to my friends who reminded me of these important truths. You know who you are.

As for me, I have to do some research now to make sure the details are right. What a glorious project this is!

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Technology and Society—The Land Line Phone

A while back, a list appeared on various sites entitled Nine Things That Will Disappear In Our Lifetime. Now, the definition of a lifetime would depend on the person. It might be 30 seconds for someone and 100 years for a newborn. We never know (I am such a philosopher, I know). But let’s take the figure usually used to calculate the duration of a generation, sixteen years, add a couple years for a fudge factor (which I learned to do in my college physics course, one of three science and math courses I took. Poetry courses–too many to count. And priceless) and come up with a nice round numbered year of 2030. That sounds about right for the things ont he list to have disappeared completely, if not sooner.

Here is the list:

1. The Post Office
2. The Check
3. The Paper Newspaper
4. The Paper Book
5. The Land Line Telephone
6. The Music Industry
7. Television
8. The “Things” That You Own
9. Privacy 
I want to give each of these its own separate post, and some of them are, in the words of the song, “as good as gone,” in my estimation.  Checks are one of these. I used to write 40 to 50 checks a month. Now I might write one or two. Good as gone.


One real generational difference comes with the land line telephone. I call the difference between my generation and that of my thirty-something daughters “the digital divide.” They have gone almost totally digital, reading newspapers on line, eschewing landlines in favor of cell phones and listening to digital music files. They have always known and used and been comfortable with digital devices. I’m more typical of my generation: I first used computers in school (teaching, not taking) in 1985 and have gradually learned how to use digital devices. I have several computers, an iPhone and a Nook. And yet I still keep writing ideas in a notebook, have a landline, read paper books and listen to CD’s. I haven’t made the break with the older forms of technology and probably never will.


There are also differences in how we use these technologies. Amy and Alyssa rarely answer their phones. If I want them to respond, I text them. I used to detest texting, although I have a better attitude toward it with some practice. When I asked them about their reliance on this form, they said it was less intrusive and that it was nice to have a written record of information such as an address or phone number. That makes sense to me, although there are times when only a phone call will do.

So, we’re keeping our landline with the number we’ve had for nearly 40 years. I need it for my fax, although there is probably a way I could configure that to work off the wi fi at home. And I know, faxes are hopelessly old school, but sometimes that’s the way I need to roll.

The Washington Post did an article on this very issue in 2010, using research and surveys. I prefer to pull these posts out of my ear, as faithful readers know.

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Bob Tale–Uncle Jim and Mr. Aintbroke

As my college friend Bob told his stories about Uncle Jim and his farm in rural New Jersey, it was clear that Jim’s operation was not some hobby farm, but one that grew a respectable amount of crops. Dot had her own vegetable patch and Bob said her meals were some of the best he had ever had.  It was a change from the Italian restaurant food he ate at home. Jim primarily raised corn, and so when the harvest came in, he employed several high school and college students to help gather the crops. Jim had a small John Deere combine, a big Ford tractor and a small one, and a Ford stake truck. The tractor towed a high-sided trailer into which the harvested ears fell. Once it was full, they loaded the crop onto the stake truck to take it to the co-op. Like most farmers, large and small, Jim depended on his equipment.
Of course, machines broke down and needed repair. Jim was a fair mechanic, like most farmers, and he could weld and fix most things.  But when something big went wrong, like when an engine blew or a transmission went bad, he called on his mechanic, a fellow named Sweeney. Sweeney was a big rough-looking fellow who seemed to wear the same brown overalls day after day. No one knew if Sweeney was his first name or his last:  Jim called him Mr. Sweeney, and he never said anything about it.  Sweeney never said much anyhow, but he was a genius of a mechanic who could fix anything.  His helper was a young man of indeterminate age who said even less than Sweeney did. No one was quite sure he knew how to speak.
Jim had heard about Sweeney from some other farmers in the area.  “He’s good,” they told him, “But he doesn’t like to replace anything unless it’s good and broken.” Bob said he went with Jim one time to pick up a part Sweeney had ordered for him that he couldn’t get otherwise.  The old farm he lived on had a small barn that he had converted into a garage and the wrecks of about a hundred cars covering the hillside. Bob told Jim if a Saint Bernard showed up he was leaving.
Dot had another name for Sweeney.  She called him Mr. Aintbroke or just Aintbroke because the first time Jim called him out to work on a tractor and the truck when the engines were making odd noises, Aintbroke listened to the engines and said, “Naw, that engine’s still good.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Dot handled the financial end of the farm, and she asked Jim if it wouldn’t be better to do preventative maintenance on the equipment. Jim did what he could, oil changes and lubes and so forth, but he just thought and said, “No, I’ll stay with Aintbroke. He’s good and he’s fast and charges a reasonable price.” They both took to calling him Aintbroke when he wasn’t around.
Well, the corn harvest was proceeding well with every piece of equipment going full bore. The corn picker was making an odd grinding sound, the tractor’s valves were clattering and the stake truck was belching black smoke.  They were still running, but just barely. Then it happened.  Every piece of equipment stopped, one after the other, in the space of a few minutes. Jim and his helpers stood there.  Then he went into the house to call Aintbroke.  Dot heard the machines stop suddenly and greeted him at the door.  “So, are they broken now?” she asked. Jim didn’t answer.
Aintbroke  had to replace the engines on all three machines, and it took a few days until they could be shipped to the farm. Aintbroke showed up and worked straight through, as was his custom.  He never seemed to stop, even to eat.
In the meantime, Jim was able to make do with the small tractor and the pickup truck. A neighbor loaned him a combine, and while Bob said the work was twice as hard, they got it done.  Aintbroke finished installing the new engines about the time the harvest was done. Jim and Bob and the helpers fired them up and they all roared with new power.  Aintbroke and his assistant climbed into their ancient rust-covered wrecker and drove off.
As the crew came into the house to eat, Dot greeted them. “So I guess the equipment ain’t broke any more,” she said.
Bob said Aintbroke was Jim’s mechanic through the four years of college that I knew Bob. I don’t know what happened to him after that.

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